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  • Sonya Cooke

HOW TO TALK TO A WALL


It's sad, but true that very often your working relationship with your scene partner is not productive, pleasant, creative, or enjoyable. They smell bad, they hit on you, they are constantly forgetting their lines and/or blocking, they seem to be looking through you, they bellow their lines to you, they play the moment EXACTLY the same no matter what you do to shake them out of it...Sound familiar? Or perhaps, they are your romantic lead and you just don't feel the chemistry. If she or he were your Romeo or Juliet, you certainly wouldn't kill yourself for this individual. What do you do in these situations? How do you work with people who seem to squelch any possibility of genuine connection, chemistry and communication? What do you do when you would rather act with a wall? First and foremost, you must take full responsibility for your performance. It matters not how poorly your fellow actors seem to be playing; no audience member is going to make excuses for your bad work. If your acting partner is causing some difficulty for you, it is your job to use your technique to SEE the other person differently. Your resentful silence and inaction garners no favors for you. It is YOU up there on stage, so let’s be clear that it is your job to take care of your scene partners, not to demand that they take care of you. One of the best techniques for adapting to less-than-ideal scene partners is a standard rule in improvisation: say "Yes." “Yes” to anything and everything that your maligned partner does. Incorporating what you perceive as bad acting, poor listening, pandering, breathing too heavily or sweating too much can all be transformed into acting opportunity. You are a rich actor if you can turn acting disadvantages into acting currency. Start by stating what it is that your partner is doing that you initially dislike. Then, fabricate some justification for it, or spin it in some way that makes the behavior harmonize with the character. Examples: Let’s say your scene partner is reciting his lines in the exact cadence and sound as the original actor did in the original film. One way to say “Yes” to this behavior is to think from the viewpoint of your character, “He is so concerned with sounding right and affecting his behavior. He must really love me and want to impress me! Look at him trying so hard to sound proper and gentlemanly…” Of course, this is a crude and very approximate example, but whatever you can come up with to turn your acting partner’s minus into a plus is the way to go. Another example: What if your partner is constantly forgetting her lines? You can say “Yes” by thinking, “She is truly disoriented and confused. It must be because of [enter play event reference,] what can I do to help her?” Basically, you are making up some justification or excuse for their behavior and you are adapting it to the imaginary world of your characters. This way, you stay in the scene and deal with the behavior head on, as opposed to trying to ignore it and complaining about it later! Another wise lesson Jo Spiller taught me is, "If there is something missing in the relationship, provide it." I am not saying to give your scene partner breath mints as an opening night gift, but if compassion is lacking, provide it, if patience is needed, offer it, if support is absent, be the first to lend a helping hand. This isn't about being a saint, but doing everything within your power to improve the situation. Ultimately, it's self-serving if it results in better acting all around, and that is just fine! If your partner is not listening to you, listen with every fiber of your being. If your partner is overacting so that his grandmother in row L sees every muscle in his face, lend him your unfiltered honesty and sense of truth. This is not to say that you are not already doing this, but perhaps you have to recalibrate in order to level the playing field. Under such circumstances, your “terrible” scene partner may be your best friend, as he will stretch you far beyond your comfort level. One of the most complicated, yet effective tools is to endow your partner with the qualities you desire in him/her. Do you need to perceive your partner as caring and warm? Then, inlay an image of that warmth and love onto him/her. It is as if you are taking a snapshot and superimposing another image on top. Is your love interest not stirring your emotions? Apply the same tool by daydreaming what you would like him/her to look like or behave like and literally encode the partner with those qualities. Sit with the image and slowly imagine the desired effect. Chances are, when you return to rehearsals, you will view your partner more favorably. Your ability to imaginatively endow your partner with the meaning and qualities your character requires is a crucial asset to your tool kit. Beyond scene-work, endowing and imagining are both extremely useful when working on monologues for auditions. Most actors bemoan having to talk to some obscure point on the wall inches above the auditors’ heads. I couldn’t agree more; it is absolutely awkward and totally unnatural. Instead, CREATE with your imagination the partner you want to see, and work off of the live-action fabrication in the monologue. I wrote a blog a couple years ago entitled, “The Dia-Monologue,” which is a tool for creating the line-by-line actions and reactions of your invisible partner in a monologue. The more nuanced you craft the performance of your imaginary partner, the more nuanced your performance will be. What if you absolutely need something from your scene-partner? It's not as if communication is off-limits, but it must be done with care and respect. Instead of telling the other actor what to do, ask questions and have a conversation about the moment at issue. This way it can be collaborative, not combative. When it comes to blocking on line problems, notify your stage manager, who then may decide whether to talk to the actor personally or to take the issue to the director. It's important to note that everyone has problems with their cast-mates from time to time. You must count yourself blessed when you find yourself in a cast that greatly inspires you, and when you find such groups or individuals, stick with them! Produce with them and continue collaborating. The saying goes, “You are only as good as your partner,” so when you find your golden egg, sit on it. Also, do not be foolish enough to think that just because you have many opinions about the acting of others that they don't have just as many opinions about you. Letting go of your judgment of others is a good practice when working in groups. Give your partners the benefit of the doubt, take on more blame before resting it on others. Defensiveness is usually an indicator of insecurity and selfishness. Therefore, practice patience, responsibility and compassion at all times in your work. Acting is a collaborative art, so it is necessary to address your personal issues with working with others. It’s a delicate balance of being both a follower and a leader, an independent actor and a team-player. In my experience, the more I simultaneously depend upon and support my cast, the better my work is. Use the above tools to absorb the choppier waves in the rehearsal and performance process, so you can fully give over to the play world you and your cast mates are co-creating.

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